Does Actualism Have A Problem With Supererogation?

Actualism, as I understand it, is the view according to which in determining what it is permissible to do at a time, t, one should consider only what would happen were one to do it and compare that with what would happen were one to do each of the other things one can do at t. Many object to Actualism (call this the Standard Objection) on the grounds that if it is true, then people are able to get out of present obligations in virtue of their potential future wrongdoing. That seems right to me. Actualists have a set of standard replies to this kind of argument, though. Mightn't there be a stronger objection to Actualism, however, one to which Actualists can't offer the same kind of replies that they do to the Standard Objection? I think there might. This objection is that Actualism seems to allow people to get out of having present moral obligations, not in virtue of their potential future wrongdoing, but, instead, in virtue of their potential future supererogatory behavior.

First I present the Standard Objection to Actualism. Consider:

Headache: On Monday, Patient has an excruciating headache. Though it will go away on its own in five hours, drug D will cure it immediately. However, as D is a very potent drug, if it is administered on Monday, drug E must be administered on Tuesday in order to counter its side effects, otherwise Patient will die. Doctor can administer D on Monday, but he knows that if he does so, even though he will be able to administer E on Tuesday, because of his own laziness then, he won’t. Doctor has two options on Monday: ADMINISTER D: administer drug D to Patient, and ~ADMINISTER D: not administer drug D to Patient

The Standard Objection goes as follows: In Headache, Actualism has it that it is permissible, even required, for Doctor to ~ADMINISTER D. But that's to allow someone to get out of having a moral obligation now just because were they to do it now, they'd later (entirely avoidably) act horribly wrongly then. That's absurd. Moral degenerateness can't let one off the moral hook.

 

Here I take it are the Standard Actualist replies:

Reply #1: Morality can let one "get out of" having a moral obligation in virtue of one's own potential future wrongdoing, but only in cases in which morality's requiring someone to do something would be to require them to act in a way such that were they to do so they'd overall act much worse than they would were they not do what morality requires (if Doctor is morally required to ADMINSTER D, then if he does ADMINISTER D, he'll act overall more morally wrongly than he will if he doesn't ADMINISTER D (if he does ~ADMINISTER D while being morally required to ADMINISTER D he will act wrongly, but not as wrongly as he will if he does ADMINISTER D, for letting Patient die on Tuesday, after doing ADMINISTER D on Monday, is much more morally wrong (given that he is obliged to ADMINISTER D on Monday) than not relieving Patient of the 5 hours of pain Doctor could by doing ADMINISTER D on Monday)). Morality's requiring that of someone would be perverse.

Reply #2: No morally conscientious person would ADMINISTER D in Headache. What no morally conscientious person would do in a situation is extensionally equivalent with what is morally required to do in that situation. Therefore, what is morally required in Headache is ~ADMINISTER D.

 

Now here's the supererogation-based argument against Actualism. Suppose, for the sake of argument (and what I'm inclined to believe is true), it is not morally required to save 6 people from drowning if in doing so one will lose a leg. Now consider:

Six Drowning: Bloggs stands at the edge of a pond in which six people are drowning. At t1, Bloggs can jump in and save four of the six. If, at t2, he remains in the pond, he will be able to save the remaining two as well; however, if he does stay in the pond and save the remaining two at t2 his leg will be bitten off by a crocodile swimming around in the pond. If Bloggs were to save the four at t1, though he would be able to climb out of the pond at t2 and neither save the remaining two nor lose his leg, because he would then be so committed to saving as many people as he can, he would, at t2 stay in and save the remaining two and lose his leg. If, at t, Bloggs does not dive in and save the four, then he won’t at any later time be able to save any of the six. At t1, Bloggs’s options are: DIVE - dive in and save the four, and ~DIVE - not dive in and allow all six to drown. And Bloggs’s options, at t2, were he to DIVE at t are: STAY - save the remaining two and lose a leg, and EXIT - get out of the pond and allow the remaining two to drown and not lose a leg

Actualism seems to yield the result that it is permissible for Bloggs to do ~DIVE at t1 in Six Drowning. But that's absurd. There is no sense of 'permissible' according to which it is permissible for Bloggs not to save the 4 drowning people he could easily save at t1.

Note: with respect to this objection, neither of the Actualist's Reply#1 nor Reply#2 can get a foothold (with respect to Reply#2, in fact, given that no morally conscientious person would do ~DIVE at t1 in this case, it should follow from that line of reasoning that it is not permissible to do ~DIVE in this case).

42 Replies to “Does Actualism Have A Problem With Supererogation?

  1. Hi Pete,
    You stipulate that if Bloggs were to save the four at t1, he would then be able at t2 to climb out of the pond. You also stipulate that if Bloggs were to save the four at t1, he would then (at t2) stay in the pond. But what’s unclear is whether Bloggs has control at t1 over whether he climbs out or stays in at t2. He would clearly have such control if it were true that he would do whichever he intends at t1 to do. Is that case? If not, I don’t see why you think that he has, at t1, the option of climbing out at t2. He will, at t2, have control over whether he climbs out. But from that it doesn’t follow that he has control at t1 over whether he climbs out at t2. And to have control at t1 over whether he climbs out at t2, it seems that there must be some act that he could perform or attitude that he could form at t1 that would affect whether he climbs out at t2.

  2. Hi Doug. I stipulate that if he does DIVE at t1 he _will_ STAY at t2 (though if he does DIVE at t1 he _will_ then at t2 be able at t2 to EXIT at t2). There is nothing he can at t1 do (intend, etc.) at t1 such that were he to do it then, at t1, he would at t2 EXIT (because it’s just a fact about him that when he starts saving people he gets so into it that he (voluntarily) goes all out). Nevertheless, it’s absurd to think, I submit, that it’s permissible for him to let the 4 drown at t1 in this case. One’s potential future “Mensch-ness” can’t get one out of a present moral obligation.

  3. I agree that it’s absurd to think that it’s permissible for him to let the 4 drown at t1 if he has at t1 the option of saving the 4 without losing his leg. But, of course, it’s not all absurd to think that it’s permissible to refrain from saving the four if this would come at the cost of losing one’s leg. And given that you concede that “there is nothing he can at t1 do (intend, etc.) at t1 such that were he to do it then, at t1, he would at t2 EXIT,” I think that the actualist should just deny that the case you’ve described is even coherent. The case you’ve described is one in which he putatively has at t1 the option of exiting at t2, but yet you describe the case such that he has no control at t1 over whether he exits at t2. If control at t1 over whether one will X at t2 is essential to one’s having at t1 the option to X at t2, then the case you describe is incoherent.

  4. Hi Doug,
    I’m not sure how my case can be described as incoherent. I talk about what options a person has at each time (t1 and t2) to do at those times. I make NO CLAIMS about what options he has at t1 to do things at t2. (I do this PRECISELY BECAUSE one way of cashing out what is in dispute between the Actualist and Possibilist is the correct account of (morally relevant) cross-temporal options.) I submit, from the case AS DESCRIBED, it’s clear that there’s no intuitive sense of “permissible” according to which it is permissible for him at t1 not to dive. That’s it. The problem for the Actualist is that she’s committed BECAUSE OF HER THEORY to say in my case, again as described, that it is permissible for Bloggs not to dive. Of course, she can bite the bullet. So much the worse for her.

  5. Fair enough. It’s not incoherent. But I think that the actualist should deny that, “from the case AS DESCRIBED, it’s clear that there’s no intuitive sense of ‘permissible’ according to which it is permissible for him at t1 not to dive.” As described, the case is one where Bloggs does not have the option of diving in at t1 and not losing his leg. And intuitively it seems permissible not to dive in at t1 if one can’t as of t1 ensure that this won’t come at the cost of losing one’s leg.

  6. Hi Doug,
    Fair enough. You’re counseling the Actualist to deny my putative datum. That’s her right. It’s a huge bullet to bite from were I’m sitting. (And, sure she can then go on, as you suggest, to justify her denial of the datum by couching things in terms of her controversial and precisely-what’s-in-dispute way of understanding the morally relevant notion of a cross-temporal option. However. If that’s how she’s grounding her rejection of my putative datum, then she’s merely affirming her theory in the face of my counterexample (in just the way, I’d maintain, a JTB theorist of knowledge would be responding to Gettier’s counterexample when she says “but it IS a by of knowledge. See: she believes it; she’s justified; and it’s true! So of course it’s a bit of knowledge”).)

  7. Hi Pete,
    Okay, but can’t the actualist appeal to this datum: It is permissible for him at t1 not to dive in if he doesn’t have the option at t1 of diving in and getting out at t2 before losing his leg? Of course, you could deny this datum. But that’s a huge bullet to bite from where I’m sitting.
    Do you deny this datum? If so, is it because you deny that the cost to the agent in performing some altruistic act is relevant to whether it is permissible for her to refrain from performing that act or is it because you deny that the fact that some bad event (viz., B) would occur if the agent were to perform that act at t1 and there is nothing that she can do at t1 to prevent B from occurring as a result of her performing that act at t1 means that performing that act has cost B for her?

  8. Hi Doug,
    I do not (as a Possibilist) deny:
    “It is permissible for him at t1 not to dive in if he doesn’t have the option at t1 of diving in and getting out at t2 before losing his leg”
    And that’s because in my case according to the Possibilist’s notion of what it is to have a cross-temporal option Bloggs DOES have the option at t1 of diving in and getting out at t2. It’s only on the Actualist’s notion of a cross-temporal option that he doesn’t have that option. And that’s EXACTLY why I used the case that I did–one in which the two accounts of cross-temporal options yield different verdicts about what the person in question can, cross-temporally, do.
    Of course the Actualist can appeal to the datum you cite (as a matter of fact, the argument I offer appeals to that very datum!). But what she can’t non-question-beggingly do is appeal to her particular understanding of what a cross-temporal option is in responding to my argument, because that’s precisely what’s at issue between the Actualist and the Possibilist.

  9. Hi Pete,
    Here are three jointly incompatible claims:
    (C1) It is permissible for Bloggs at t1 not to dive in if he doesn’t have the option at t1 of diving in and getting out at t2 before losing his leg.
    (C2) Bloggs doesn’t have the option at t1 of diving in and getting out at t2 before losing his leg.
    (C3) It is impermissible for Bloggs at t1 not to dive in.
    You and the actualist both accept C1. And whereas the actualist denies C3, you deny C2. You deny C2 on the basis of your possibilist notion of a cross temporal option. By contrast, the actualist denies C3 on the basis of C1 and the actualist notion of a cross temporal option.
    And you claim that one cannot appeal to the actualist (or possibilist) notion of a cross temporal option in arguing against the possibilist (or actualist). That would be question-begging. (I’m not so sure, for as you’ve defined actualism, it isn’t committed to any view about what a cross-temporal option is.) But you believe that your argument against actualism doesn’t presuppose the possibilist notion of cross-temporal option; it presupposes only C3, which you take to be evidently true, and evidently true in a way that doesn’t presuppose that C2 is false (which would in turn presuppose the possibilist notion of a cross-temporal option).
    So, if understand things, we disagree about the following. You think that C3 is just evidently true and that we can know this independently of our knowing whether it is the actualist or the possibilist notion of cross-temporal option that’s correct. I, however, deny this. I think that the reason it’s so clear to you that C3 is true is precisely because you deny C2 on the basis of the possibilist notion of a cross-temporal option. I believe, contrary to you, that insofar as you are uncertain about whether it is the actualist or possibilist notion of cross-temporal option that is true, you will be uncertain whether C3 is true.
    Am I right in thinking that this is where we disagree?

  10. Hi Doug,
    Yes, I do believe that it is clear that for no intuitive sense of “permissible” is it permissible for Bloggs not to dive in at t1 given my case, as described.
    I said ONE WAY of understanding the dispute between Actualism and Possibilism is as a dispute over the morally relevant notion of cross-temporal ability. I say that in response to your reply precisely because you’re the one who brought it up as grounds for your rejecting the datum. And for your type of Actualism (yes, in my view your Scrupulous Securitism is a version of Actualism) I think it is clear that the dispute with Possibilists is over the relevant notion of cross-temporal ability. For other Actualists, Jackson, for instance, the dispute with the Possibilist is different.


  11. Smith: “Bloggs why aren’t you jumping in and saving those 4 people?!!”
    Bloggs: “It’s okay for me not to.”
    Smith: “What?!!! Of course it’s not okay. You can simply dive in and lift them out.”
    Bloggs: “No there’s a crocodile in there and if I save them it will bite my leg off.”
    Smith: “Oh, I see. If you jump in there and save those four, you won’t be able to get out in time to prevent your leg from being bitten off.”
    Bloggs: “Oh no. I didn’t say that. Of course I’ll be able to get out. It’s just that I’ll really want to save more people and will decide then to lose my leg to save them.”
    Smith: ??????????????????

    As I say, absurd.

  12. Bloggs: “What will happen if I jump in?”
    Smith: “You’ll save the six but lose your leg.”
    Bloggs: “Is morality so demanding as to require me to sacrifice my leg so as to save the six.”
    Smith: “Well, no.”
    Bloggs: “But you think that I’m required to jump in at t1?”
    Smith: “Yep.”
    Bloggs: But you’re telling me that I’m going to lose my leg if I jump in and that I’m powerless to change the fact that I’ll lose my leg if I jump in?”
    Smith: “That’s right.”
    Bloggs: “So you still think that I’m required to jump in?”
    Smith: “Yep.”
    Bloggs: ????????????

  13. Hi Peter,
    I am sympathetic to this objection, but I am not sure if this is a stronger objection to actualism than what you call the “Standard Objection.” It seems to me the actualist might also have comparably good replies to your “Supererogatory Objection.” Here are two possible candidates.
    (1) It is open to the actualist to deny that saving six lives at the cost of losing a leg remains supererogatory if Bloggs will freely choose to either not save the four lives or not *just* save the four lives. Suppose, as you now do, that there is nothing Bloggs can do at t1 such that were he to do it, he would at EXIT at t2. The actualist could hold that since Boggs does not, at t1, have the ability* to EXIT at t2, Boggs *incurs* an obligation to save the six lives at the cost of losing his leg (though this is an act that would otherwise be supererogatory and, it seems, rationally permissible).
    * I mean “ability” in the sense that Holly Goldman employs in her “Doing the Best One Can” (p. 195). The actualist could also substitute some other form of control for “ability” (e.g. Doug’s “present deliberative control” or “scrupulously securable option” or Jacob Ross’s “directly securable option”).
    (2) According to some standard formulations of actualism, although Bloggs may avoid incurring an obligation to [DIVE], he does not avoid incurring an obligation to [DIVE & EXIT].
    To keep things simple, suppose Bloggs will decide to save no one. Actualists and possibilists agree that, at t1, Bloggs *can* save four people. It’s just that, at t1, no matter what Bloggs intends etc. at the time, he will freely decide not to save four people. Now, here is what I take to be a standard formulation of actualism.
    Actualism At t an agent S is obligated to φ at t’ iff S can φ at t’, and what would happen if S were to φ at t’ is better than what would happen if S were to ~φ at t’.
    When φ = [Dive], then Bloggs may avoid incurring an obligation to [Dive].
    This is supposing that it would be better (in an agent-relative sense) for Bloggs to keep both his legs than to rescue six people.
    However, when φ = [Dive & Exit], Bloggs is obligated to φ because it would be better for him to [Dive & Exit] than to not save anyone.
    So, contrary to the first option, the actualist could accept that Bloggs is not obligated to DIVE. But they could then try and sugar the pill by pointing out that Bloggs is still obligated to [Dive & Exit]. This would seemingly allow them to maintain that [Dive & Stay] is supererogatory.
    I’m not defending actualism. Ultimately, I don’t think these replies are fully satisfactory. But I don’t think the actualist replies to the “Standard Objection” are fully satisfactory either.

  14. I feel the intuitive pull of Bloggs’ responses in Doug’s imagined conversation. But I think the seemingly counterintuitive implications of holding that Blogg is obligated to [DIVE] can be satisfactorily addressed.
    One way to go would be to supplement a possibilist-style view with a principle about practical oughts. An analogue of one I’ve previously proposed would advise Blogg, at t1, to choose to act on the best option that, at t1, he has the ability (again, in Goldman’s sense) to bring about. However, this is *not* because Blogg is necessarily obligated, at t1, to perform the best option he has the ability to perform at t1. (Blogg is, I think, obligated at t1 to bring about the best option he *can* at t1). Instead, this practical ought picks out the *least bad* option Blogg has the ability to perform at t1. Blogg should(practically) not jump in to save the four because, by doing so, he will minimize the bad (irrational, immoral) acts he performs over the course of his life.
    With this amendment, here’s one way Doug’s conversation could be revised.
    Bloggs: “What will happen if I jump in?”
    Smith: “You’ll save the six but lose your leg.”
    Bloggs: “Is morality so demanding as to require me to sacrifice my leg so as to save the six.”
    Smith: “Well, no.”
    Bloggs: “But you think that I’m required to jump in at t1?”
    Smith: “Yep.”
    Bloggs: “But you’re telling me that I’m going to lose my leg if I jump in and that I’m powerless to change the fact that I’ll lose my leg if I jump in?”
    Smith: “No, once you’re in, you will have the ability to exit before losing your leg. But no matter what you intend to do now, you would (once you’re in the pond) freely decide to save the six, thereby losing your leg.”
    Bloggs: “So you still think that I’m required to jump in?”
    Smith: “Yes, because you’re required to jump in and exit. But since (no matter what you intend now) you will freely decide to do something other than what you’re obligated to do, I’d advise you to not jump in. Not because you’re not obligated to jump in (you are), but because, at the present moment, it’s the least bad option you can ensure you will perform.
    Bloggs: “Oh, okay. That seems exactly right!”
    Please excuse the plug of my own work, but I defend something like this move in my 2015 Phil Studies paper, where I propose an alternate form of Scrupulous Securitism (one much closer to possibilism). I call the practical principle I propose “Do Your Best.” Here’s a link to it.
    http://philpapers.org/rec/TIMDSS-3

  15. I like Travis’s explanation, because I’ve always kind of suspected that at least some of what Possibilists and Actualists disagree about is the proper use of certain words (‘ought’, ‘permissible’, ‘obligation’, …). Assuming there is no problem about what ‘advise’ means, Travis’s question of what to advise Bloggs to do avoids the semantic issue and goes right for the practical one. And Actualism seems to give a better answer to the practical question (what to do, what to advise).
    I figure Smith is not bemused about Bloggs’s choice and action, but about the words Bloggs is using to articulate them. Is that right, Peter? (Smith usually has more to say than “??????????????????”, is why I ask.)

  16. Doug,
    In any ordinary conversation, that use of the word “powerless” in your dialogue would be a perverse pun.
    No ordinary Smith would respond to Bloggs’s “powerless” comment with: “That’s right.” Rather, he’d respond: “What?!!! Who said you’re powerless about that?” Then you’d have Bloggs trot out his Actualist definition of powerlessness to which any ordinary person would say, “That’s nonsense. On this definition of “powerless”, Jones who is now asleep is powerless to avoid dying tomorrow just because he is going to wake up and voluntarily decide to kill himself then.”
    Note: your dialogue, of course, requires employing the highly tendentious term “powerless”. Mine doesn’t. Just “will”s and “can”s.
    And Doug, of course, you’re also committed to its being ok for him not to save the 4 because if he does at t1 after doing so he’ll voluntarily blow his own head off for kicks (and not save anyone else). Again, I don’t think any ordinary person would at all agree that it’s okay for him not to save the four at t1 just because if he does so he’s going to voluntarily kill himself after doing so.
    Travis,
    As regards your (1), I’m not sure I understand. It sounds like on this proposal it would be obligatory for Bloggs to dive in even if he were to have no option of exiting at t2 (even at t2). But that seems false to me. If Bloggs wouldn’t have an option of exiting at t2 then he would not have an obligation at t1 to dive in. (Then again, I may be misunderstanding your (1).) As regards your (2), these Jacksonian versions of Actualism still fall prey to the objection because the objection is that there’s NOT EVEN ONE intuitive sense of permissible according to which it is permissible to not dive in. Adding that there’s at least one sense of permissible according to which it is not permissible to not dive doesn’t evade the objection.

  17. Jamie (if I may),
    I think Smith is bemused both by Bloggs’s choice and action. To emphasize this, take the version of the case in which Bloggs chooses not to jump in and save the 4 because he knows that if he does so he’ll voluntarily blow his own head off after doing so. My Smith would be appalled at Bloggs’s not jumping in in this case. “Just because you’re going to entirely avoidably absurdly blow your own head off, you think that makes it okay not to jump in and save these four people you can easily save??!!”
    I’m not sure what to say about the advice point. But that’s because I’m not sure what standpoint to adopt when giving advice. If I’m adopting the standpoint of trying to tell you what would be in your best interest, then of course I’ll tell you not to jump in. If I’m adopting the standpoint of trying to get you to do what you’re morally obliged to do, then I’d tell you to jump in. And here I’ll just reiterate that I think that no morally conscientious person in Bloggs’s situation would refrain from diving in. (So if I know Bloggs wants to be a morally conscientious person I’ll most certainly advise him to jump in.)

  18. Travis,
    In your dialogue you have Smith say: “Yes, because you’re required to jump in and exit. But since (no matter what you intend now) you will freely decide to do something other than what you’re obligated to do, I’d advise you to not jump in. Not because you’re not obligated to jump in (you are), but because, at the present moment, it’s the least bad option you can ensure you will perform.”
    Two (probably related) questions: (1) How is it the case that no matter what Bloggs intends he will freely decide to do something other than what he’s obligated to do? If he decides to jump in he’s not going to do something other than what he’s obligated to do–he’ll remain in the pond, save the 2 and lose a leg. Doing that at t2 will be perfectly permissible then.
    (2) On what sense of “bad” is not diving in “the least bad” of Bloggs’s options (at t1)? How is his diving in and then remaining in the pond to save the remaining 2 and losing a leg “more bad” than remaining on land and letting the six drown?

  19. Hi Peter, you write: “So if I know Bloggs wants to be a morally conscientious person I’ll most certainly advise him to jump in.
    I just wanted to flag that it’s not always advisable for non-ideal agents to act as an ideal agent would. Some examples discussed here: http://www.philosophyetc.net/2009/01/ignoring-reality-aint-so-ideal-either.html
    Having said that, I like your original case and find it much more compelling than the standard objections to actualism (which strike me as clearly silly, at least when we focus on practical issues rather than semantic ones as Jamie sensibly advises). I wonder if one could justify a hybrid view which is actualist about impartial costs (and hence avoids the disastrous advice that possibilism yields), but possibilists about personal-prerogative-enhanced costs (and hence avoids letting agents “off the hook” simply due to their disposition to later sacrifice more than they need to)?

  20. Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t agree with that. So now it does look like there is a genuine practical, normative disagreement here, rather than a terminological one.
    What happens if we lower the stakes a little on one side? Sobel is facing a similar situation, but instead of lives at stake it’s t-shirts. They are important t-shirts (some prized shirts from McDaniel’s Monads collection). Sobel is prone to become overly impressed by altruistic considerations, so if he jumps he’ll lose his foot trying to save all six shirts, although he certainly could save four shirts and then climb out safely. We all know Sobel so well that we all know this.
    If I am the one able to give advice (obviously it really should be Smith, but he’s too busy working on a project for over-privileged youth at the moment), I will definitely advise Sobel not to jump in. If Sobel (uncharacteristically) reasoned clearly and rationally, I believe he’d reach the same conclusion. That seems quite conscientious to me.
    But why does Sobel not reason conscientiously to the conclusion to jump and save just four t-shirts? Because he cannot reach that conclusion, knowing what he knows.
    Of course, there is probably a separate question that people are driving at when they’re disinclined to “let him off the hook.” I don’t have a good feel for that question.

  21. Pete,
    Thanks for your response. I was granting it would be permissible for Bloggs not to dive in if he had no option of exiting at t2. More specifically, I was thinking the actualist can
    (I) grant that in a situation where Bloggs *can* only (a) not save anyone or (b) or save six and lose a leg, it’s permissible to (a) and supererogatory to (b).
    This, I take it, is stipulated. Now, the actualist and possibilist agree that in SIX DROWNING not only *can* Bloggs (a) and (b), he can also (c) save the four and exit. It’s just that Bloggs would freely decide to (b) rather than (c) if he were to dive. And furthermore, no matter what Bloggs intends, etc. now, he would (b) rather than (c) if he were to dive. But again, he *can* (b) by now intending to dive and, once he rescues the four, intending to exit.
    SIX DROWNING is not an instance of (I). It’s a case where Bloggs *can* (a), (b) or (c). In such cases, it’s open to the actualist to hold the following.
    (II) In a situation where Bloggs *can* at t1 (a), (b) or (c), but would freely decide to (b) rather than (c) if he were to dive and this is true no matter what Bloggs intends, etc. at t1, Bloggs incurs an obligation to (b) (an otherwise supererogatory act).
    This move would allow the actualist to hold that (b) is supererogatory when Bloggs can only (a) or (b). But that Bloggs is nevertheless obligated to DIVE in SIX DROWNING. As far as I know, no actualist actually makes this move. But it’s open to them.
    I am sympathetic to your reply to (2), viz. – the Jackson and Pargetter move. Earlier formulations of actualism also entailed the same thing, even if it was not always made explicit. Though I am sympathetic to your reply, standard actualist cases (e.g. PROFESSOR PROCRASTINATE) are intuitively compelling for a reason. Many seemed inclined to think that there is one intuitive sense where it is not obligatory to accept to review the paper, or in Michael Zimmerman’s WEDDING CASE decline the wedding invitation or, perhaps, DIVE. That being noted, I don’t endorse this actualist move. Actualism would then entail that agents have multiple obligations that prescribe incompatible actions and doesn’t say which one takes priority.
    That was a long way of saying that I agree with you that my reply (2) on behalf of the actualist isn’t completely satisfactory. I also think that actualist replies to the “Standard Objection” aren’t completely satisfactory, though I am sure actualists disagree with me.

  22. Following up on Jamie, could I ask a really naïve question about the whole debate? (In fact, it’s so naïve that I feel better posting pseudonymously. I hope that’s okay.)
    Has anyone argued that “morally permissible” is just ambiguous between (roughly) “morally advisable” and “not morally blameworthy”? This ambiguity is easy to miss, because in every (?) case other than those of predictable future irrationality/immorality, the two are extensionally equivalent. But in Headache-style cases, they’re not. In Headache, ~ADMINISTER D is both morally advisable and morally blameworthy.
    Of course, we might want to allow that it’s always morally blameworthy to do something that’s not morally advisable. (I think this is pretty plausible.) In this case, Doctor would be doing something morally blameworthy no matter what. But that’s his tough luck: such is the price of laziness.

  23. Richard,
    Thanks for that link and I agree with you that I would not always advise a person to do what they’re morally obliged to do, and for precisely the reasons you’re pointing too. I would most certainly advise Doctor, in my Headache example, to ~ADMINISTER D. But that doesn’t settle the question what it is morally permissible for him to do. That said, I don’t find questions about what I should advise X to do to in any way straightforwardly illuminate what it is morally permissible for that person to do. And that’s because we can have many different goals in advising someone.
    Jamie,
    In your T-shirts case I agree that one can be morally conscientious and not dive in and save the 4 t-shirts. (I think one can be morally conscientious and dive in in your case as well. There’s nothing morally wrong with sacrificing a leg for some Tshirts. Nuts, yes. Morally wrong, no.) But the relevant disanalogy with my case is that one isn’t morally obliged to save T-shirts in the first place, not so when it comes to saving lives.
    That said, I think we are indeed approaching this from very VERY different angles. I have no views about the relation between morality and rationality, for one thing. (That’s because I have absolutely no clue what people are talking about, generally, when they start talking about rationality. My head starts to spin when “reason” and “rationality” get thrown around.) I find I have a much clearer grasp on the concept of “morally permissible” (“morally OK”, “morally fine”, etc.) than I do on either “reason” or “rationality”. That’s why I’m formulating things in terms of moral permissibility and only speaking in those terms. Perhaps there’s some very deep fundamental difference in approach here that explains our diverging verdicts. I should say, however, that I don’t think that because I’m not talking in terms of “reasons” and “rationality”, but, rather, in terms of “moral permissibility” that the dispute between me and the Actualist is merely terminological. But, then again, it’s often hard to convince those who do think a debate is merely terminological that it isn’t. (For instance, I’m inclined to think that lots of debates between proponents of different theses involving “reason” and “rationality” are merely terminological. Proponents of those debates, of course, don’t think so.)
    Travis,
    On your proposal you write:
    “This move would allow the actualist to hold that (b) is supererogatory when Bloggs can only (a) or (b). But that Bloggs is nevertheless obligated to DIVE in SIX DROWNING. As far as I know, no actualist actually makes this move. But it’s open to them.”
    Right, but for the Actualist (of Doug’s variety), at t1, Bloggs can, in the morally relevant sense of ‘can’, at that time, only (a) or (b). And so for that Actualist (of that stripe) ~DIVE is permissible for Bloggs at t1. And that’s precisely what I claim is very implausible.

  24. I just saw your second reply to me Pete. Regarding (1), I should have been more careful in my wording. On that response, no matter what, at t1, Bloggs intends to do, he will freely decide to either perform a supererogatory act or an immoral act. So no matter what Bloggs intends to do at t1, he will freely decide to do something other than the bare minimum required to meet his moral obligations.
    Regarding (2), it might be better from an agent-relative standpoint. Perhaps Bloggs has most reason, all things considered, to prefer the outcome of keeping both his legs over the outcome of saving six lives at the cost of his leg even though the latter outcome is better from the point of view of the universe. If this seems implausible, we could amend the details of the case accordingly. SELFISH SID 2 in the paper I linked above is (I think) an instance of this type of case.
    With respect to an ideal advisor, the advisor could tell the agent to fulfill his obligations. But, as is stipulated in the case, the agent won’t fulfill his obligations no matter what he intends to do at the present moment. Maybe the advisor shouldn’t only give advice that she knows will not be followed. She could also advise the agent about how to behave *in light of the agents’ moral shortcomings.* This practical advice would be advise that the agents could, at the present moment, ensure that they will follow.
    This doesn’t preclude the possibility that the agent is blameworthy for doing what she ought(practically) to do either. Bloggs could be blameworthy for not jumping in because he can jump in and exit and that is what he is obligated to do. Of course, he could also avoid blame by choosing to perform the supererogatory act, but that (by stipulation) is less preferable than losing his leg.

  25. Travis,
    You write:
    “Regarding (1), I should have been more careful in my wording. On that response, no matter what, at t1, Bloggs intends to do, he will freely decide to either perform a supererogatory act or an immoral act. So no matter what Bloggs intends to do at t1, he will freely decide to do something other than the bare minimum required to meet his moral obligations.”
    It’s precisely what’s in dispute whether no matter what Bloggs intends to do at t1 he will either perform a supererogatory act or an immoral act. My argument is that the Actualist is committed to saying that in not diving at t1 he doesn’t act immorally. That’s precisely the problem for the Actualist.
    You also write:
    “With respect to an ideal advisor, the advisor could tell the agent to fulfill his obligations. But, as is stipulated in the case, the agent won’t fulfill his obligations no matter what he intends to do at the present moment.”
    I’m not sure I understand how you’re using “fulfill his obligations” here. The way I understand that phrase, someone does fulfill his obligations when he acts supererogatorily.

  26. Pete,
    You write “Right, but for the Actualist (of Doug’s variety), at t1, Bloggs can, in the morally relevant sense of ‘can’, at that time, only (a) or (b). And so for that Actualist (of that stripe) ~DIVE is permissible for Bloggs at t1. And that’s precisely what I claim is very implausible.”
    I think that’s right. I don’t know what the ‘morally relevant sense of can’ amounts to exactly. The disagreement between actualists and possibilistts, as I understand it, is about the scope of actions an agent can perform that we think they could be obligated to perform.
    Even on scrupulous securitism Bloggs can in an important sense (just not the morally relevant sense) also (c). After all, Bloggs can DIVE and, once he is in the pond, he can EXIT. Both options are scrupulously securable at the relevant times and that, I take it, is sufficient for it to be the case that Bloggs can perform both options. Doug, I think, agrees. My understanding is that he (and people like Holly Smith and perhaps Jacob Ross) would argue that although Bloggs can, at t1, [DIVE & EXIT], it’s not a relevant option at t1 since, at t1, there are no intentions he could form that would result in him performing this act.
    I take actualists and possibilists to agree that agents can, in one sense, perform the actions possibilists think agents are obligated to perform. If actualists and possibilists disagreed about that, we might see actualists make arguments like the following.
    (1) Bloggs can’t [DIVE and EXIT].
    (2) Ought implies can.
    (3) Therefore, Bloggs is not obligated to [DIVE and EXIT].
    At any rate, I don’t see why this prevents actualists from adopting the move I suggest. Actualists allow that Bloggs can in one sense (though not the sense required for moral obligation) (c) in DROWNING SIX. But that isn’t, at t1, something that is scrupulously securible. So, actualists might claim, Bloggs incurs an obligation to (b). Nevertheless, in cases where Bloggs can’t (in any sense) (c), (b) remains supererogatory.

  27. Pete,
    I should add that my proposed revised version of scrupulous securitism is not a version of actualism. I think it’s a hybrid view in the vein of what Richard Chappell outlines.
    When discussing an ideal advisor, I again was sloppy in my wording. The advisor could tell the agent which act-sets are not supererogatory, but merely obligatory. At the same time, since it’s stipulated that the agent will freely ignore that advice, the advisor could also advise the agent how to act in light of the agents’ moral shortcomings. This advice would be advice that the agent could, at the present moment, ensure she would fulfill.

  28. In a simpler case (Simple Sobel) in which there are just four shirts and no crocs, I think it would not be conscientious for Sobel to let the t-shirts drift. Let’s suppose jumping in the water is not itself a cost, for Sobel. So, he’s just letting them drift away, even though he knows how important they are? WTF, Sobel?
    It’s true that it’s hard to tell when a dispute is merely terminological, but I think in moral cases we can generally tell by seeing what the practical upshot of the difference is. What does it amount to? Since Travis and I agree about what to advise Bloggs and Sobel (I think), and what to do in the various situations, I think probably remaining disagreements are terminological.
    You can take the ‘and rationally’ out of my earlier comment, if that word is throwing you off. If the verb ‘reason’ is causing you trouble, that’s a bigger problem.

  29. Travis,
    Ah. Now I see. It wasn’t clear to me from what you’d written, that you were multiplying senses of ‘can’ and admitting that one is morally relevant in one way and the other is morally relevant in the other way (because of course it is morally relevant if it can be crucial to whether a course of action is permissible or not). On the face of it, this looks rather ad hoc to me. (On this view, whether a course of action is permissible and supererogatory now or impermissible will now depend on what the agent CAN1 do AND CAN2 at that time.) I’ll think on it more but, as I see it, this seems a rather desperate move on the Actualist’s part.

  30. Jamie,
    I’m afraid I do have just as much trouble with “reason”. I have a much better grasp of “morally wrong” (which I take to be synonymous with “morally impermissible”) than I do “reason”.

  31. A little more on Portmorian “Powerlessness”
    Jones and Smith are both in desperate need of a blood transfusion. If they each don’t get one by noon they’ll die. Jones is blood-type AB (can receive a transfusion from any blood-type) and Smith is blood-type O (can only receive transfusions from type O blood). Good news! There are two ambulances about to arrive, one with type O blood and one with type AB blood. The type O ambulance arrives first at 11:30. Jones, who knows himself very well realizes that once the AB ambulance arrives because it will be brought in by his ex-boyfriend he’ll then freely decline the transfusion (i.e., decline even though then he’d be perfectly able (in every sense of ‘able’) not to decline at that time) and just die so that his ex can see him die and feel guilty for having dumped him, acts quickly, snags the type O blood and transfuses it into himself. Smith looks on in amazement and horror. The AB ambulance arrives at 11:35, but as that blood is useless to Smith, he will die in just under a half an hour. Smith screams at Jones: “What the fuck?!!! That was a monstrous thing to do!” In reply Jones says: “Ahem. Excuse me. It was perfectly okay for me to take the type O blood. You see I was POWERLESS at 11:30 to save myself other than by injecting myself with the type O blood. And how DARE YOU say that it is wrong of me to save myself by using the type O blood at 11:30 if I was POWERLESS to save myself otherwise than by using it. You’re the monster for thinking that I should have let you use the type O blood. At 11:30, because I was POWERLESS to save myself otherwise than by using the type O blood, it was just you or me, and HOW DARE YOU demand that I prefer you over me in such a situation!” Jones walks off, head held high, confident in his moral rectitude.
    How can this be anything but a farce?

  32. I wonder whether our intuitions are not distorted in Jamie’s Sobel example by thinking (wrongly, of course) that the T-shirts have negligible value. If we change the example a bit, I’m not sure I get the intuition (full disclosure: I rarely get actualist intuitions). Suppose that Sobel borrowed my grandmother’s ring that has great sentimental value to me. Still, I don’t think anyone (not even Sobel) should sacrifice their foot in order to save my grandmother’s ring. Now suppose Sobel accidentally drops the ring in the pond. He can get the ring back safely, but the pond also has other people’s grandmother’s rings. And the rest of the story continues just like Jamie’s. Here I am not sure I get the intuition that Sobel is obligated not to jump or even that he is not obligated to jump (though I do think that given that I know Sobel’s tendencies, I would be begging him not to jump, but I am not sure this speaks in favour of the view that he is not obligated to do it). At any rate, whatever our intuitions are, I think there is no question here that in the Simple Sobel version of this case, Sobel is morally obliged to rescue the ring.

  33. I think it’s interesting and surprising that in his ring example Sergio would be pleading with Sobel not to fulfill (what Sergio takes to be) Sobel’s moral obligation. (I am assuming that its being an obligation to Sergio isn’t the point here – Sergio would still be begging Sobel to act in a morally impermissible way even if the obligation was to some third party.)
    It makes me feel more confident that the criticism of Actualism is a criticism of a semantic theory rather than a criticism of a practical view. Maybe Sergio and I agree about (i) what to do in these scenarios, (ii) what to advise others to do, and (iii) even how to feel about it afterward – I think Sobel would properly feel bad about failing to recover vovó Tenenbaum’s ring. So the disagreement is about whether Sobel was obligated to jump in. But now this does seem like it could just be a semantic disagreement.

  34. I, of course, am not inclined to think that this is a (mere?) semantic dispute. For one thing, I believe whether someone acts morally wrongly is relevant to other moral matters, such as what other people are morally permitted to do. And so even if there may be agreement concerning issues of advice (addressed to Sobel), “what to do”, etc., the non-semantic-ness of the debate can be discerned there (for those skeptical that the debate is (merely?) semantic and need convincing, that is). Then again, I think these implications are for other moral permissibility facts (though facts having to do with other agents beside Sobel), and it may be that there is lurking here a skepticism concerning there being anything importantly substantive in any and all debates about moral permissibility. I have no antidote for such a skepticism.

  35. That sounds helpful, Peter. Which things will which others be permitted or not permitted to do depending on whether Sobel is morally obligated to retrieve vovó’s ring?

  36. Jamie:
    I agree that there’s something strange about this. I actually would say the same thing about the original Professor Procrastinate case. She is under an obligation to accept the invitation but I don’t think I should encourage her to do it (and perhaps I should discourage her from doing it). I am somewhat sympathetic to your view that in the end it is a semantic, not practical, disagreement, but I am not completely sure that this is quite right. I think that the diverging judgments are a consequence of the fact that I can take a stand on Sobel’s agency that he cannot take on his own agency; I can take the facts about what he’ll do as settled while giving advice in a way that he can’t while deliberating. But I also noticed that we are being unfair to Peter. This example, as well as your original example, is more like the original Professor Procrastinate example. I’d say that it is not supererogatory for Sobel to save the T-shirts or the rings at the cost of his foot. I’d think it’s clearly wrong and stupid to do so. But I assume it would be supererogatory to save the ring if he’ll break a bone in the process of doing so. But now if we change the case so that if Sobel goes on to save the other rings, he’ll break a bone (not a crocodile, but an otter or some bizarre hammerhead fish), I think it is significantly more intuitive to say that Sobel ought to jump.
    PS. I am totally impressed with your command of Portuguese!

  37. In general third parties will be permitted to inflict costs on others who fail to fulfill their obligations in order to bring certain good results that they would not be able to inflict on those who do not fulfill their obligations to bring about those good results.
    Here are some instances with regard to the examples I’ve offered. (As I’ve given more thought to the kinds of cases I’ve been working with than I have the Sobel case, I’ll think a little bit more about the Sobel example before responding with a particular version of it illustrating my point).
    In my blood transfusion example above, Smith would be permitted to inflict serious harm upon Jones to prevent him from taking the O blood which arrives at 11:30 which it would not be permissible for him to inflict upon Jones had it been morally permissible for Jones to take the O blood (in a case, say, in which he really wouldn’t be able to take the AB blood later (either because none is headed toward the hospital or there were some other real barrier to his later taking the AB blood then)).
    In my Six Drowning case third parties would be able to inflict as much harm upon Bloggs to save the four drowning as would be permissible for them to inflict upon him in a case in which he refrained from saving them even when there was absolutely no cost to him to saving them. (I hesitate to say what that cost would be because many don’t share my intuitions in these cases–I think it’d be okay to push Bloggs in in Six Drowning if that would lead to the 4 being rescued. But what I think it would be permissible for 3rd parties to do isn’t really the point. Just so long as you think that there is a difference in what third parties can permissibly do to Bloggs to save the 4 in Six Drowning and what 3rd parties can permissibly do to Bloggs to save the 4 in a version of Six Drowning where Bloggs wouldn’t have an option at t2 of getting out of the pond at t2 that should push in the direction I’m indicating. For a natural explanation of that difference I’d submit is one which appeals to the moral wrongness of Bloggs’s not diving at t1 in Six Drowning.)

  38. There’s a mistake in the very first sentence. I meant to write:
    “In general third parties will be permitted, in order to bring about certain good results, to inflict costs on others who fail to fulfill their obligations that they would not be permitted, even in order to bring about those very same good results, to inflict on those who do not fail fulfill their obligations.”

  39. Sergio,
    I was a little worried about that disanalogy – I don’t believe in obligations to self, but I know you do.
    I basically agree with your diagnosis. The advisor can treat the fact that the agent will procrastinate, become overly altruistic, etc., as a kind of natural fact, and (maybe) the agent cannot treat it that way.
    Peter, I guess it does seem right that Smith could push Jones to the ground in order to get the O blood (and maybe could not permissibly do that if no AB truck were coming soon), and maybe someone could push Bloggs into the water if it was clear he wasn’t going to jump in. Are those the sorts of harms you had in mind?

  40. Jamie,
    Yeah, those are the kinds of things I had in mind. I’m attracted to the idea that what explains the permissibility of inflicting harms in these kinds of cases is (in part) the wrongness of Bloggs’s and Jones’s behavior. Of course, there could well be rival explanations. But if I can make the case that the wrongness facts are indeed playing a role, then that might lend support both to there being a genuine dispute here and also to the possibilist’s cause in this dispute.

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